Mike Rossi


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Courses » Politics and Culture

Content: Politics and Culture

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Also taught as "Comparative Political Culture" at the College of New Jersey, Politics and Culture is an upper-level course that examines a series of theoretical approaches to the relationship of culture and political authority at both the communal and governmental levels. It also studies the relationship between culture and democracy, and asks whether any state or society is capable of having a "liberal democratic culture". I have taught this class for nearly five years and this particular question served as a major component for my dissertation.

This course discusses how various aspects of culture affect social relations and political decision-making. The course centers around three central questions:

The class addresses both theoretical and empirical studies of these themes and draws on cases in both advanced industrialized as well as industrializing nation-states.

Course Overview

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been no universal political ideology challenging democracy. While authoritarianism still exists in the form of military dictatorships and Islamic-based fundamentalisms, a general understanding that eventually all political roads eventually lead to democracy is reflected in what Francis Fukuyama once classified as the “end of history”. However, the outbreak of ethnic-based conflicts from the Balkans to the Caucasus, to Africa and the Middle East, have raised questions on the universality of democracy, and led to the conclusion that we are now experiencing what Sam Huntington (in)famously termed a “clash of civilizations”. Whatever the beliefs, and whatever the political orientation, we are faced with a set of unavoidable facts: culture matters, identity matters, and most importantly, history matters; and they can matter more than democracy, civic co-fraternity, and economic cooperation.

Even more sobering is the harsh reality that since the end of the Cold War, and particularly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, both knowledge and understanding of culture throughout the world is severely limited in U.S. foreign policy. An inability of viewing societies beyond macrosocial categorizations has seriously impeded efforts in understanding how democracy works, and in many cases has actually worked at entrenching non-democratic regimes and undermining states Washington has sought to assist. It is thus critical for the study of politics to analyze the ways in which culture shapes political behavior and activity.

Target Group

This is a course primarily offered to juniors and seniors. I have also offered this class at the graduate level at the Rutgers Fort Dix - McGuire Air Force Base and Rutgers-Brookdale Freehold campuses. I assume the enrolling student has some basic understanding of international countries, and is able to draw information from scholarly articles in political science, history, sociology, and anthropology.

I tend to dissuade incoming students from taking the class, especially Freshman, who would do better to take an introductory course first. Lately, I have allowed Sophomores to take the class, but only if they are comfortable with the material and the work load. I have had a number of stellar second-years students in the past who have grasped the material and understood the concepts as well as third and fourth year.

While the class is open to anyone interested, and at times serves as an upper level elective, I especially welcome students from the history and anthropology departments, as the class is deliberately designed to be interdisciplinary. Occasionally I have the random Computer Science / Engineer / Biology major who takes the class and enjoys the different type of learning and logic.

Course Structure

The first part of class begins with a theoretical survey of different approaches to, and understandings of, political culture. A number of prevailing theories are examined including theories of social capital, theories of social character, and theories of political symbolism.

The second part of class builds on theories of political symbolism and elements of social capital and examines studies of collective and historical memory, which I argue provides one of the most dynamic applications of culture for a collective group. Historical memory is, put simply, state-sponsored initiatives in accentuating what elements of a group's identity, historical legacies, and cultural heritage are worth promoting through official socio-political channels such as education, public holidays, public monuments, commemorations, and claims to historical ownership. Conversely, historical memory is also related to historical amnesia in that state sponsored collective memory is selective memory and as much as there is an emphasis on what is remembered and commemorated, there is an equal if less noticeable effort in sanitizing, whitewashing, and outwardly denying other elements of history deemed inappropriate or damning to national identity.

Work Material

This course draws from a series of readings normally reserved for graduate level seminars, utilizing sources from political science, history, anthropology, sociology and consumerism. One of the primary readings is the introductory chapter of David Laitin's Hegemony and Culture, which provides an excellent comparative theoretical analysis of the "two face of culture" that the overall theme of the class is based on: culture as system, as explained by Clifford Geertz, and culture as practice, as articulated by Abner Cohen. Though it is not officially associated, this class is based on material introduced to students in my Introduction to Comparative Politics class.

Author Bibliographic Data
Anderson, Benedict 
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso Press, 1991
Aronoff, Myron Israeli Visions and Divisions: Cultural Change and Political Conflict. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995 [Aro95]
Berman, Shari “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic”, World Politics, vol. 49 (April 1997), pp. 401 – 29 [Ber93]
Brooks, David On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004 [Bro04]
Cohen, Lizabeth A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003 [Coh03]
Emmert, Thomas A. “Kosovo: Development and Impact of a National Ethic”, in Nation and Ideology: Essays in Honor of Wayne S. Vucinich, Ivo Banac, John G. Ackerman, and Roman Szporluk, eds. Columbia University Press, 1981: 61 – 86 [Emm81]
Harrison, Lawrence The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it From Itself. Oxford University Press, 2006 [Harr06]
Hobsbawm, Eric “The Social Formation of the Past: Some Questions” Past and Present, no. 55 (May, 1972), pp. 3 – 17 [Hob72]
Huntington, Samuel “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 22 – 49 [Hun93]
Kershaw, Ian The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. Oxford University Press, 1987 [Ker87]
Kitromilides, Paschalis M. “On the Intellectual Content of Greek Nationalism: Paparrigopoulos, Byzantium and the Great Idea”, in Byzantium and the Modern Greek Identity, David Ricks and Paul Magdalino, eds. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1998: 25 – 34 [Kit98]
Kubik, Jan The Power of Symbols Against the Symbols of Power: The Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of State Socialism in Poland. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994 [Kub94]
Laitin, David Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba. University of Chicago Press, 1986 [Lai86]
Petro, Nicolai Crafting Democracy: How Novgorod Has Coped with Rapid Social Change. Cornell University Press, 2004 [Pet04]
Putman, Robert Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, 1993 [Put93]
Sabetti, Filippo Village Politics and the Mafia in Sicily. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002 [Sab02]
Schwartz, Barry “Social Change and Collective Memory: The Democratization of George Washington”, American Sociological Review, vol. 56, no. 2 (April, 1991), pp. 221 – 236 [Sch91]
Shorto, Russel “How Christian Were the Founders?”, The New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2010 [Sho10]
Trevor-Roper, Hugh “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, in The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Rangers, eds. Cambridge University Press, 1983: 15 – 41 [Tre83]
Rossi, Michael “In Search of a Democratic Cultural ‘Alternative’: Serbia’s European Heritage from Dositej Obradovi? to OTPOR”, Nationalities Papers vol. 40, no. 6 (November 2012), pp. 853 – 878 [Ros12]
Wilson, Richard “The Many Voices of Political Culture: Assessing Different Approaches”, World Politics, vol. 52 (January 2000), pp. 246 – 73 [Wil00]


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